by | Nov 21, 2008 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

OAKLAND, Calif. — It is not for me, as a sports writer with ketchup stains on his shirt and a screaming editor on the other end of the phone, to take sides in this World Series. But I am. Taking sides. Actually, I’m taking a front. Rick Reuschel’s front. Actually, just the part from his chest to his belt. I like it. Reminds me of my Uncle Mort, the pickle man from Baltimore.

Now, that’s a body. Who needs the sleek, pumping, well- defined frame of a Jose Canseco or Rickey Henderson? Shoot. You can find 20 of them at any track meet. But Reuschel. He is, as they used to say in the ’40s, a shape in a drape. Or maybe a tent. There is a reason they call this man Big Daddy. And it isn’t because he’s a family man.

Of course, none of this helped him Sunday night. The big, bashing Oakland A’s pasted him for five runs in four innings of World Series Game 2, and before you could say, “Where’s that second bag of potato chips?” Reuschel, one of the Giants’ hopefuls in this Fall Classic, was back in the dugout, no doubt assuming his favorite position, leaning against the water cooler.

He lost. He got clobbered. Which is too bad. Because in this age of all-day Nautilus and Perrier athletes, here was a guy with whom the average guy could relate. And I mean average. There are men on couches all across America who could dust themselves off, find an old pair of sneakers, and whip Rick Reuschel in a 100-yard dash.

But that’s the point. The man is 40 years old. Sunday night, he became the oldest man in 60 years to start a game in the World Series. With his balding head and sagging frame, no one will ever suspect him — as they have Jose Canseco — of using steroids. They might suggest it. But no one would suspect it.

And unlike Canseco, Reuschel does not have adoring females screaming for his dirty socks. Nor does Reuschel have a 1-900 phone line. If he did, it would probably go like this:

“Hi, this is Rick. I had a busy day today. Went to the 7- Eleven for some Marlboros. Picked up a carton of Diet Coke. Came home and fell asleep on the couch. Well. It’s been great talking to you, but I gotta go. I’m out of matches. . . .”

Now, I know it is commonplace for sports writers at the World Series to write about the winners. And after all, the A’s do continue to treat the baseball the way Leona Helmsley treated the chambermaids.

There is no wall they cannot send it over. And it’s not even the big guns. Saturday night, Walt Weiss, the No. 9 hitter, donged a dinger. (That’s Bay Area talk.) Sunday night, it was Terry Steinbach, the No. 7 batter who hit all of seven home runs since April, whacking one off Reuschel into the leftfield seats.

(By the way, by virtue of Oakland’s dominating wins so far, some people are predicting the A’s in four. I doubt that. It should be A’s in three.)

But just the same, I think those of us who are too old and fleshy to dream about the major leagues, or even a competitive game of Wiffle Ball, should salute Reuschel’s efforts for a moment. Especially because we may not see him again in this Series.

What the man has done is remarkable. Five years ago, when he was 35 (and the Tigers won the World Series; can you remember back that far?), Reuschel was given his walking papers from the Chicago Cubs. “Finished,” they declared. Washed up. They went to the playoffs that year and left him off the roster. Ha. Serves them right, losing to the Padres.

Reuschel, meanwhile, did what any unemployed man would do. “I made a lot of phone calls,” he said. “I talked to a lot of teams. I felt I could still pitch. I just needed a chance.”

Finally, Pittsburgh, a team in dire straits, figured Reuschel might be worth a gamble. He went to the minor leagues, pitched in Hawaii, pitched in A-ball, and wound up winning the Comeback Player of the Year Award, going 14-8 for the Pirates. And ever since then, they’ve been telling him he’s history, and instead, he keeps making it.

Now. It is true. There are not many pitchers I watch and say, “Gimme a bat. I could hit this guy.” I say it watching Reuschel. That is because he throws these junk balls that have “beat me” written all over them. But the amazing thing is, he usually puts them past people. He fools them. Like a beefed- up (or beef-jerkeyed up) Frank Tanana, he makes batters salivate, then spit.

Not Sunday. Sunday he looked, well, old. He walked three men, and they all came around and scored. He challenged Canseco, then gave him a base on balls. He tried to control Henderson, and Henderson just made him look bad. “Rick is the type of pitcher,” manager Roger Craig had said a few days ago, “that you either get to early, or he goes right for nine innings. There doesn’t seem to be an in-between with him.”

There was Sunday. It was bad.

But, hey, that happens. This, after all, is sports. You expect the big, strong, young and fast to come out victorious most of the time. Just the same, sometimes, it’s not just about the winning and losing. It’s about being there on the mound. It’s about believing in yourself. There are several dozen experts in baseball who, at one point or another, told Rick Reuschel to forget about it. Find another line of work. And not only did he ignore them, he won 36 games the last two seasons. And last week, he was the winning pitcher when San Francisco won the national league pennant. Forty years old. A shape in a drape. Take that, Bo Jackson.

Of course, as I said, we may not get to see Reuschel again. If the A’s keep this up, they’ll be fueling the parade cars by Wednesday morning. Remember when before this series began, the mayors of San Francisco and Oakland tried to arrange a friendly wager on the Series? And the mayor of San Francisco said: “Forget it. There’s nothing in Oakland I would want.”

Yeah. Nothing but their baseball team.

As for me, well, I begin my search for a new shape. Something the average guy can relate to. On Sunday, Oakland’s Dave Parker, 38 years old, slugged a ball to rightfield, then barely made it to second base in time to beat the throw.

I kinda like that. . . . CUTLINE A familiar sight: Rickey Henderson steals second base in the first inning. He later scored the game’s first run.


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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